Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Movie Review: Dope/Timbuktu (2015)


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It was inevitable that I’d come across a film like this during my December endurance run. I wasn’t expecting this to be the first time I’d officially run into it this year, though. With how many new releases come out and the different opinions on each one, there will undoubtedly be films that I disagree with the consensus on. In fact, come January, you’ll see just how many I disagreed with others on. However, prior to today’s subject, I’ve always gotten on the defensive: Excusing Jupiter Ascending’s sheer idiocy because it transcended into the realms of unintentional comedy gold, forgiving The Transporter Refueled as I genuinely think that series has gotten a bad rap overall, and pretty much any new films involving Adam Sandler since, at this rate, the hate for him is getting really dull by now. Here, I find myself looking at the product presented and going “What was so great about that?” Keeping my host of auto-replies to potential backlash on standby, let’s get started with the review: This is Dope.

The plot: Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are best friends who live in Inglewood, California. However, their lives are turned upside down when they get tangled up in the business of local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky). As a result, they end up with a backpack full of dope that they have to get rid of one way or another, before they get found out by either the police or opposing drug dealers who want their hands on it.

The acting is really good in this movie. Moore creates a truly believable performance as Malcolm, probably giving one of the more realistic depictions of the ‘geek’ that I’ve seen in far too long, Revolori feels a lot more comfortable here than last time he was on the big screen as young F. Murray Abraham, and Clemons was exceptionally fun and came across as someone who would be an awesome friend to hang out with IRL. Beyond that, we have Zoë Kravitz doing a decent job as Nakia, Blake Anderson as the rather goofy Will was a nice addition and a very out-of-place Roger Guenveur Smith as Mr. Jacoby. And then we get into the bit parts played by rappers, which range from surprisingly decent to not-surprisingly pointless. Vince Staples was kind of cool as a dopey gangster, Kap-G makes for a nice scene-stealer as Fidel X, and Tyga gets all of one scene and that’s really all that should ever be seen of Mr. Rack City Bitch in a wide release. However, easily the best out of the lot is A$AP Rocky as Dom. Not only is he a perfect fit for this movie, since he lives and breathes classic hip-hop culture as much as the film does, but he even makes good on his dialogue involving sending drones over Inglewood.

I’ve made it no secret that I love me some hip-hop. If it’s used well, I’ll commend people like Ludwig Göransson for providing great tunes in a great context like in Creed. If it isn’t used well, I’ll chew out cats like Craig Armstrong for using otherwise great tunes in a terrible context like in The Great Gatsby. The music for this is exceptionally well-used, to the point where I wonder if the music was set to the scene or the other way around. Not only did they find a perfect thematic use for Busta Rhyme’s legendary verse in Scenario by A Tribe Called Quest, a key scene is timed around the song and it works amazing well. Add to this classic cuts like Black Sheep’s The Choice Is Yours, Nas’ The World Is Yours and Public Enemy’s Rebel Without A Pause, as well as some songs from the in-universe band Awreeoh, and this is a pretty sweet soundtrack.

However, this film’s attitude to hip-hop is probably its biggest downfall for two big reasons. First off, all the golden age rap worship made by our mains? I hate to pull the elitist card, but it comes across pretty heavily as empty posturing. And I’m not even talking about them un-ironically looking through Yo! MTV Raps for fashion tips, although that certainly doesn’t help. I’m referring to a specific conversation Malcolm has with Dom about Malcolm’s apparent love for the 90’s era. Without getting too specific (this time around, at least), Dom dresses him down when he gives two examples of classic albums and neither of them are from the 90’s. That’s classic posing that gets brought up regularly in the comments sections for HipHopDX and XXL, among many other places. The second reason is that, for as much talk that has been made in terms of this film’s originality, its plot should be very familiar to those who do partake in hip-hop. A geeky kid trying to survive in the California suburbs without resorting to crime like the people around him? A good kid trying to make it out of a m.A.A.d city, perhaps? I’m not saying that K.Dot should sue or anything; just that people have jumped the gun a bit when it comes to this film’s credentials.

Although, in a way, that might be the point of it. After all, a key theme of the film proper is that of identity. What is “white” behaviour, what is “black” behaviour, what is “geek” behaviour, what is “nigga” behaviour, etc. Maybe Malcolm’s obviously false adoption of old-school hip-hop culture is out of a need to find his own identity in the grand mess that is his life in the Cali suburbs. We see this a fair bit in a handful of other characters too. Jaleel (Quincy Brown) is trying to be a Blood but trying too hard, since he takes the Blood’s disdain for the Crips to even more ridiculous extremes by not saying the letter C on record. Will wants to be able to say the word nigga, but doesn’t fully understand why he can’t according to other people. Hell, even Malcolm’s admission of being a geek is continually brought into question throughout the film, given his hobbies and the actions he is forced to undertake just to stay alive; after all, whenever he’s asked who is, he says that he’s “just Malcolm”. I think this might be the first time I actively figured out a film while writing about it. For those few people out there who wanted a better look into my thought processes, I give you Exhibit A.

All in all, this is a well-done portrayal of an admittedly well-worn coming-of-age story. The acting is really good, the writing makes some nice points about personal identity, the music is extremely well integrated into the overall film, not to mention being awesome in its own right, and the overall production is slick and highly energetic. I guess I finally understand what the rest of the world sees in this movie after all. It’s better than The Gunman as, when it comes to the delivery of rather derivative plots, this film does portrays a lot better overall. However, since this film ended up taking a fair amount of time for me to really “get it”, it fell short of the immediate ingenuity of Unfriended.

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Being “timely” in my line of work can only be seen as a bad thing. Either because the numerous references made to other media ends up dating each review or, more unfortunately, as a result of real-world news. This is very much in the latter category, as we’re dealing with a film involving Islamic extremists. With the world gripped in fear over the threat that ISIL poses, especially after the recent attacks, I’d almost say that this film shouldn’t be watched for a little while yet. After all, that fear is quickly turning us into the very thing that ISIL wants us to become to further their own causes, and I doubt that watching a film that could potentially give fuel to that fire would be helpful. But, maybe this could do the exact opposite. Maybe it could give some better perspective on the situation and, if I’m not asking for too much, lead us to acting a bit more rationally under the circumstances. Only one way to find out. This is Timbuktu.
The plot: Set during the occupation of Timbuktu by the Islamic extremist group Ansar Dine in 2012, farmer Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) and his family are just trying to survive under their current living conditions. However, when an unexpected accident ends up with one of Kidane’s cows being shot dead, what follows is a slippery slope that not only ends up showing just how oppressive the rule of Ansar Dine truly is, but also how it ends up encompassing everyone as a result.

This is a beautifully shot film with near superhuman ability being exhibited by not only the director Abderrahmane Sissako, but also by cinematographer Sofian El Fani and editor Nadia Ben Rachid. The framing for every single shot is perfect, sometimes to rather dubious ends; maybe it’s my own perverted brain at work, but I could have sworn that this film featured an AK-47 bikini trim metaphor with someone shooting a tuft of grass down to size between some suspicious looking sand mounds. However, this is a film that rich in visual language that, given the themes of suppression throughout, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the intent of the scene; it worked surprisingly well if it was, as well. However, what makes these gorgeously composed shots of the desert landscape and its inhabitants work as well as they do is how they are put together. Every scene shows malice next to majesty, with the more heinous acts of the Ansar Dine being juxtaposed with some extremely graceful movements and very naturalistic conversations, not to mention A-grade wildlife footage. Credit needs to be given to Ahmed dit Pino, who embodies every ounce of tragedy and unfairness that the film has to offer but also all of its poise and humanity.

In terms of showing a government body taking forcible control over a territory, this does a disturbingly good job at portraying the suffocation of people’s freedoms. I highlight how good a job it does because, with the extents that Ansar Dine go to when it comes to enforcing Sharia law, it would be unfortunately easy for this to devolve into parody. I mean, we’re talking about music being made illegal, with rap music being singled out at one point as being sinful; this idea has been made fun of a few too many times by now. However, through both the stable performances of the cast and the grounded writing, it makes the numerous restrictions made work to further the film’s efficacy. It also works for the more obviously awful laws being passed, like the rampant misogynistic attitudes that make marrying women off without their consent out like a perfectly just idea. Even when we see people do less than moral acts like manslaughter and adultery, the punishment going far beyond what fits the crime creates some genuinely chilling imagery. For all those who applauded the Ashley Madison hack and client leak, you’ll think twice about that after watching this; I guaran-damn-tee it.

Unfortunately, despite this film’s ideal writing, it isn’t delivered in the most ideal fashion. Now, since this film is set in an area and time period that involved a lot of cultural mingling between the Muslims and the native Africans, the dialogue goes through several different languages, including French and even some English. Since we’re dealing with characters who are foreign to each other in more ways than one, a lot of the dialogue has to be translated between characters. Now, in one way, this works to the film’s advantage as it further illustrates the racial differences and tensions that ultimately fuelled the regime that took over Timbuktu in the first place. In another way, it also means that a hefty amount of the dialogue is repeated. This is an hour and a half long film; the repetitive nature of the words being spoken, despite how good they are at first, ends up making this feel like it’s being padded out. When some of it works really damn well, like when Kidane is brought in to be sentenced, it starts to drag down once you realize that it is not only being echoed, but that it is being echoed at a remarkably slow pace. Yeah, even the repeated exchanges would have been passable if they didn’t feel like they were being drawn out at the same time. Between the two, it’s another case of what matters more: What works for the film, or what works for the film’s subtext. As a critic, I’m leaning towards the latter, but as your average moviegoer, I’m edging closer to the former. Let’s split the difference and say that the dialogue was fine being repeated, but it could have been handled a lot better than it was here.

All in all, even with this film’s dialogue issues, this is a beautifully realized production. The cinematography is stunning, the arrangement of the shots is great, the writing hits tyrannical while maintaining stability and the acting delivers that sentiment startlingly well. Since this shows that, no matter where you go, no-one wants to be ruled over in this fashion, maybe this film really can give some perspective on the current situation with ISIL. It’s better than Paper Towns, as the imagery used is a thousand times more effective than that film’s best writing moments. However, in terms of overall impact, Chappie’s look into the relationship between sentient creation and sentient creator worked better than the somewhat basic moral message of this film.

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